Buying Better: The Impossible Challenge of Ethical Shopping
Many consumers are intimidated by calls to buy smartly and sustainably. Now a handful of activists and big companies are trying to make ethical purchasing go mainstream -- but they'll have to change the way we think.
One day, Claudia Langer found herself in the midst of a spending spree. Like a former smoker lighting up after a long break, she bought out half a toy store -- garish plastic toys, Lego bricks, Barbie dolls. For the past two years, she had been making considered, exceptionally sensible and sustainable consumer choices. She hadn't flown in a plane, and she had only purchased wooden, eco-friendly toys. "Joyless, colorless stuff that was totally uninspiring," she says today.
Langer is the founder of a romantically named online portal for ethical consumerism called Utopia. She had told her customers they could help save the planet with their consumer choices, but that day in the toy store, frustration set in and triggered a crisis of confidence. "For years I'd been telling myself that sacrificing exotic travel made me happy," she says. "But it wasn't true. In fact I'm energized by trips abroad, and it wasn't as if my sacrifice had any effect on climate change."
Langer is furiously chopping fruit and texting as she talks in the conference room at the Utopia office in Munich. She's an impatient woman, energetic even in her disappointment. At times, her resentment is almost comical -- like when she vents her exasperation with the Volkswagen Passat BlueMotion she bought. "What a downer," she says. "The biggest rip-off of my life."
She'd spent weeks researching cars, determined to make the right ethical choice. It ended up being a traumatic experience. "I deliberately bought the car with the lowest carbon emissions in its category, but I was duped by the advertising." Buying it was an act of sheer self-denial, she says now, and a total mistake. "My children laughed at me. The second you pick up a bit of speed, you start guzzling gas."
Anyone who has ever tried making environmentally friendly or socially and politically responsible consumer choices knows how tempting is can be to eat, buy and waste whatever you'd like or to buy whatever is cheapest. It can be freeing to do so without a guilty conscience, without feeling like you are destroying the planet, without worrying about the consequences.
And that day in the toy store, Claudia Langer wasn't just giving in to a whim. She was admitting defeat, turning her back on the idea that ethical consumerism alone could change the world and that her business could revolutionize Germans' consumer behavior.
Waiting for Critical Mass
It's not that Utopia wasn't a success: The website was admired and practical, and had a steadily growing consumer base, but Langer thought it was all taking much too long. She felt like she was preaching to the converted, the 15 percent of the population who didn't need to be convinced to buy ethically. She wanted to reach the mainstream, but the mainstream wasn't interested.
"My utopian vision was that consumer pressure on businesses and corporate pressure on politics could change the world," says Langer. "But as long as there isn't a critical mass of consumers harnessing their power, we won't be in a position to create a better future for our children."
Her message may be bleak, but she's not alone in her doubts. Many other Germans want to be responsible consumers, but have also come to the realization that saving the planet through purchasing choices is actually a lot of work. "Consumers aren't good allies either for industry or politics," says Langer. "They're hypocrites, always keen to point the finger of blame and pass the buck whenever it's time to take responsibility themselves."
Claudia Langer has by no means given up on conscientious consumerism. But now and then she treats herself to a long-haul flight or enjoys a snack without knowing its ethical credentials. She's no longer quite as strict as she used to be. But is that acceptable, given the stakes?
Even before consumers can start making ethically informed choices, hundreds of decisions have to be made in company headquarters, factories, marketing departments, supply chains and on the part of subcontractors. The decisions must be made by managers, inspectors and companies alike -- and untangling them can be nearly impossible.
Keal Leangky, Cambodia
In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a dirt road runs through the western part of the city, where industry gives way to rice paddies. Twenty-one-year-old Keal Leangky, a seamstress, is sitting in a hut outside the factory where she worked for two years, dressed in a red t-shirt and blue harem pants. "I should never have eaten that mango," she says.
A few months ago, in the middle of the rainy season, Leangky was nearing the end of her afternoon shift when she was overcome with hunger. She took a mango out of her bag and began to eat it. "The foreman, who was Chinese, saw me and started yelling at me. He went and fetched a translator who told me I had to stop eating."
Colleagues came over to help her. Leangky was two months pregnant and she'd always met her quotas, they argued, and she couldn't be treated like that. The foreman should apologize, or all 15 of them would lay down their tools.
Keal Leangky and her team are now all out of work. "They threw us all out," says her friend Chorn Rasy. They were paid for the work they'd done -- Keal Leangky got $35 -- but 15 garment workers with CWKH Garment Cambodia Ltd., a T-shirt factory with about 400 employees, ended up getting fired.
In the following weeks and months, more and more of the colleagues who rallied in support of Leangky were also fired, bringing the total number of people who lost their jobs over the incident to around 200. They protested as best they could, through legal and symbolic means: Since getting sacked, Leangky and her colleagues often trek from their ramshackle homes to the factory, making their way through mountains of garbage to arrive at the same time they used to start work. They sometimes make the trip every day of the week, wearing their old work passes round their necks. They want their jobs back -- but they're not allowed into the building. The gates to the factory remain closed.
"We lodged a complaint with the court of arbitration," says Leangky. "But we don't stand a chance. They say our strike was illegal and we need to look for new jobs. Now our experience is worthless. Our next wages will be entry-level."
A Turning Point
In Cambodia, one of the most productive of the global textile industry's low-cost hubs, entry-level translates to $100 a month for a six-day work week and shifts that are up to 12 hours long.
Stories like these have shaken consumers. Two years ago, on April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza complex collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh. Some 3,000 garment workers were in the building at the time, and the disaster claimed 1,134 lives. Images of the Savar collapse are now seared into the collective memory -- and in consumers' guilty consciences.
But conditions have not improved. Textiles manufacturers continue to invest in sites where there is "no rule of law but extreme poverty and an investor-friendly government," explains labor lawyer David Welsh, who works for the US NGO Solidarity Center in Phnom Penh. "But then they often act as if they're only in these countries in order to improve social conditions there."
Consumers, politicians and members of the textiles industry were shocked by what happened at Rana Plaza. The disaster made T-shirt production a top agenda point in the industry and among politicians. Gerd Müller, German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, is now pushing for what he calls a "Textile Alliance" against exploitation. It was a turning point for the issue of ethical consumption.
Hans-Otto Schrader, Hamburg
In Germany, over 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) west of Rana Plaza, Hans-Otto Schrader, CEO of the Otto Group, a mail-order giant and one of the world's largest e-commerce sites, has a surprising confession to make. He's just been talking about a tree project his company is organizing in Africa and describing the Otto Group's tradition of social conscience. He has personally become increasingly aware of sustainability issues, he says, and explains the horror he felt when a toy factory went up in flames in Thailand in 1987. His message: The Otto Group has an exemplary social and environmental record.
His claims are believable, but then he makes a disarmingly honest statement. Asked why Otto doesn't make this record part of its image, he says, "We need to be careful, so we purposely keep it out of our communications strategy."
He is worried about the power of the consumer and the Internet -- the combined clout of buyers and the media. "Our belief is that you won't necessarily be rewarded by customers and markets just because you're making more of an effort than your competitors," he says. "But you will be punished if you make a mistake."
Schrader goes so far as to refer to a "culture of outrage" surrounding the issue of ethical consumerism. "If you stick your neck out too far and someone finds out your track record is less than pristine, you'll end up a target of outrage that can destroy everything you've built up in one fell swoop."
It sounds defeatist, especially given Otto's need for an image upgrade. Not only is the company seen as dowdy, it is also being cornered by Amazon. But it's true that the media and customers are especially quick to blame supposed "good guys" for any breaches of ethical codes -- as drugstore chain dm, Germany's most popular retailer, can attest to. Shortly before Christmas, a blogger found out that the company was no longer solely manufacturing its cloth bags in a factory in Augsburg, Germany, that hires the long-term unemployed -- and that it had begun having them produced in India.
A storm of indignation erupted on Twitter, with the hashtag #Taschengate, or Bag-gate. The media picked up the story, and before dm even had a chance to explain itself, its reputation as an ethical company had come under fire.
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